Only Centre Can Conduct Caste Census, Supreme Court Told

Only Centre Can Conduct Caste Census, Supreme Court Told

Only Centre Can Conduct Caste Census, Supreme Court Told



The issue of caste census has been a contentious one in India, especially after the Bihar government decided to conduct a caste-based survey for the determination of backward communities. The state government claimed that the survey was necessary to identify and uplift the marginalized sections of the society and ensure equal opportunities for them. However, the Centre has opposed this move and filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court, stating that only the Union government has the power and authority to conduct a census under the Constitution and the Census Act, 1948.

What is a caste census?

A caste census is a process of collecting and recording data on the caste or social group of the population. It is different from a regular census, which is conducted every 10 years by the Centre and covers various demographic, social, economic and cultural aspects of the people. A caste census aims to capture the exact number and proportion of various castes and sub-castes in the country, along with their socio-economic status, educational attainment, occupation, income, etc.

Why is it important?

The proponents of caste census argue that it is important for several reasons, such as:

- To provide accurate and reliable data on the population of Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and other social groups, which can help in designing and implementing policies and programmes for their welfare and development.
- To assess the extent of social inequality and discrimination based on caste and take measures to eliminate them.
- To monitor the progress and impact of affirmative action policies such as reservation in education, employment and political representation for the backward classes.
- To reflect the diversity and plurality of Indian society and culture and promote social harmony and integration.

What is the controversy?

The controversy over caste census stems from the fact that there is no consensus among the stakeholders on whether it should be done or not, how it should be done, who should do it and what should be its scope and purpose. Some of the key points of contention are:

- The Centre vs State issue: The Centre has asserted that only it has the constitutional and legal mandate to conduct a census under Entry 69 of the Union List of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution and Section 3 of the Census Act, 1948. It has also argued that any action akin to census by any other body would be illegal and invalid. The Bihar government, on the other hand, has maintained that it has the competence and authority to conduct a caste survey as an affirmative action under Article 16 of the Constitution, which empowers the state to make provisions for reservation in public services for any backward class of citizens.
- The feasibility and reliability issue: The Centre has also raised doubts over the feasibility and reliability of conducting a caste census, given the complexity and diversity of caste system in India. It has pointed out that there are thousands of castes and sub-castes in India, many of which have different names, spellings, synonyms and regional variations. It has also highlighted the challenges of defining and identifying who belongs to which caste, especially in case of inter-caste marriages, conversions, migrations, etc. It has further questioned the validity and veracity of self-reported data on caste by the respondents.
- The political and social issue: The caste census issue also has political and social implications, as it may affect the balance of power and representation among various castes and communities. Some political parties have supported caste census as they see it as an opportunity to mobilize their vote banks and demand more share in reservation quotas. Some social groups have also demanded caste census as they feel that they are under-represented or misrepresented in the existing data sources. However, some others have opposed caste census as they fear that it may lead to more polarization and conflict along caste lines.

What is the status?

The Supreme Court is currently hearing a batch of petitions challenging the Patna High Court verdict that upheld the Bihar government's decision to conduct a caste-based survey. The Patna High Court had lifted a stay on the survey imposed by a single-judge bench earlier and held that the state government's decision was perfectly valid and justified. It had also observed that caste was an important indicator of understanding backwardness and that there was no element of coercion in the survey.

The Supreme Court has asked the Centre to file its response on the matter and clarify its stand. The Centre has filed an affidavit stating that only it can conduct a census or any action akin to census. The Supreme Court has not issued any interim order staying or allowing the publication of Bihar survey results so far. It is expected to hear arguments from both sides on September 1.

What is next?

The outcome of this case may have far-reaching consequences for not only Bihar but also other states that have expressed their interest or intention to conduct a caste census or survey. It may also have implications for the upcoming 2024 Census exercise by the Centre, which may or may not include a question on caste. The Supreme Court's verdict may also set a precedent and a guideline for resolving the legal and constitutional issues related to caste census in India.

Caste census is a complex and controversial issue in India, which involves legal, constitutional, political and social dimensions. The Supreme Court is currently hearing a case on whether the Bihar government can conduct a caste survey or not, and what are the implications of such an action for the Centre and other states. The verdict of the apex court may have a significant impact on the future of caste census in India and the fate of millions of people belonging to various castes and communities. It may also influence the policy-making and governance in the country, especially in the areas of social justice, affirmative action and development. Therefore, it is important to follow this case closely and understand its implications for the Indian society and polity.

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